Over the last week I have heard people speaking of tolerance. But each time the word has been used to mean something different. And each time it has been used in a way that differs from my usage.

Tolerance is a key value of Western democracies. Confusion about tolerance can undermine the fairly delicate social fabric that has held our diverse society together.

Words change their meaning over time—or more accurately society changes the way that it uses words. There is a concept that we used to call “tolerance” that is very important to both understand and defend.

Tolerance in the Oxford and Macquarie dictionaries is much as I have understood the word. That is “endure, permit, allow to exist without interference or molestation, endure with forbearance” (Oxford); “the disposition to be patient and fair towards those whose opinions or practices differ from one’s own;” (Macquarie).

But my Encarta computer dictionary says of tolerance: “the acceptance of the differing views of other people, for example, in religious or political matters, and fairness toward the people who hold these different views” (Encarta).

This is subtly and yet profoundly different. The second half “fairness to the people who hold different views” is the same. But the first half “the acceptance of the differing views of other people in religious or political matters” is something quite different.

“Acceptance”, according to this dictionary means “willingness to believe that something is true” (Encarta). Thus tolerance comes to mean “the willingness to believe that differing views of people are true.”

This is the slide from allowing the free expression of an opinion you do not agree with to accepting all opinions as equally valid. It is the slide from what was previously called tolerance to what is really relativism—the belief that all views are true.

In previous generations it was said, “I do not agree with what you say but I will fight to the death for your right to say it”. Now it is being said “I will agree with you whatever you say for all opinions are equally true—even apparently contradictory ones.”

So when a leading Muslim says on television that he does not tolerate other religions, what does he mean? Is he saying that other religions should be banned or is he saying that he does not accept other religions as true?

Or what does it mean to tolerate an academic who makes morally objectionable statements? Does it mean defending his right to say things we disagree with? Or does it mean stopping him saying them in order to maintain the peace of society or because he is speaking outside of his expertise without entering into the debate of what is wrong with his statements?

I am not arguing for or against either of these men. I know very little about their cases—only what I see in the media. However in the media I keep reading and hearing this confusion over “tolerance”. It has caused me to stop and ponder what is being heard when we say that we are tolerant.

In some recent high school seminars I noticed the students used the word tolerance to mean “unquestioning acceptance” or “approval”. So to tolerate adultery was to approve of adultery or at least not to condemn it. The idea of disapproving of adultery but still maintaining the rights of adulterers to an equal place before the law and in society seemed very strange to them. Yet traditionally that was what tolerance meant.

The old distinctions were clear. We did not tolerate some things like theft and murder. Those who stole or murdered lost their rights in society. We did tolerate liars and adulterers. They were allowed to do things of which we disapproved and yet remain free full members of society. We did not tolerate those who loved their neighbour—we approved of them.

The new speak has blurred these distinctions. At the time of terrorists and multiculturalism, when we need to be absolutely clear about tolerance, we are being lead into the confusion of relativism. Relativism will lead to the oppression of dissent—not because views are wrong but because they disturb the peace. So tolerance will be lost in the fog of political correctness.


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